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Rationalizing Defeat: The Vietnam War in American Presidential Discourse, 1975-1995 Robert J. McMahon Ever since the end of the Vietnam War, America's political leaders have been engaged in a conscious, and tortuously complex, effort to shape the public memory of one of the most bitterly divisive episodes in U.S. history. Although the ultimate triumph of Communist North Vietnam came in 1975, two years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat units from South Vietnam, Americans and nonAmericans alike refiexively viewed the war's outcome as a humiliating defeat for the United States. Plainly, despite the deaths of over 58,000 Americans and more than two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, the expenditure of billions of dollars, and the most extensive bombing campaign ever undertaken, the United States had failed in its principal purpose: it had proved unable to prevent the emergence of Communist regimes in any of the countries that once constituted French Indochina. In the war's aftermath, how would U.S. leaders explain and rationalize to the American people a national commitment ending in defeat—a commitment widely viewed, moreover, as a tragic mistake? How would they place this grand national failure, and the enormous sacrifices of blood, treasure, and domestic comity it had entailed, within the wider compass of the nation's history and purpose? This essay explores those questions by examining the public rhetoric employed by American presidents and their senior spokesmen as they struggled to explain the Vietnam War's meaning between 1975 and 1995. I argue that each presidential administration, during these two decades bracketed by the war's end and the U.S. recognition of Vietnam, pursued a distinctive rhetorical strategy. Gerald R. Ford's rhetoric of forgetting and silencing quickly gave way to Jimmy Carter's discourse of atonement. Rejecting categorically any need for atonement, Ronald Reagan picked Robert J. McMahon is a Professor of History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. He is spending the 1999-2000 academic year as a Fulbright Professor of U. S. History at University College, Dublin. For their helpful advice and suggestions on this essay, the author is especially grateful to Fitz Brundage, Ron Formisano, Marty Medhurst, Louise Newman, James Thompson, and the three anonymous reviewers for Rhetoric & Public Affairs. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 2, No. 4,1999, pp. 529-549 ISSN 1094-8392 530 Rhetoric & Public Affairs up on and embellished a very different strand in Carter's rhetoric, one that singled out for lavish praise the heroism of American soldiers during an unusually difficult and divisive war. Reagan knit that theme into a radically revisionist discourse of celebration and ennoblement, seeking to turn defeat into triumph. George Bush and Bill Clinton also emphasized the heroism of America's Vietnam veterans. But they depicted the war primarily as a problem that needed to be overcome, offering a rhetoric of transcendence. None of those presidents, with the partial exception of the early Jimmy Carter, truly reckoned with the legacy of Vietnam or its meaning to the overall national narrative. Instead, they sidestepped the most troubling and contentious aspects of a morally ambiguous enterprise, presenting a highly selective recollection and commemoration of the Vietnam War. Each of those chief executives freely employed the vapid terminology of modern psychiatry in privileging the need for healing, recovery , and reconciliation over the need for genuine reckoning. They also wrote the war's principal victims—the Vietnamese—out of the story entirely, thus contributing significantly through their discursive approaches to a larger national tendency toward cultural narcissism when dealing with the Vietnam experience. A diverse array of scholars has been drawn of late to the important and complex function that public memory plays within societies. Nations and their leaders need somehow to come to grips with traumatic events of the recent past. Monuments, literature , memoirs, popular culture, public rhetoric—all represent arenas of contestation in that regard, arenas in which public memories are forged. Memories, of course, national as well as private, are by nature highly selective. As individuals and polities choose to remember certain aspects of the past, they foreclose—or seek to foreclose—other aspects. In the end, alternative memories come to...


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